US envoy doesn’t foresee ‘imminent collapse’ of Afghan government after withdrawal

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The top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan peace talks expressed some optimism Tuesday about the ability of Afghan forces to fight the Taliban after all U.S. troops leave, sounding a more upbeat tone than U.S. military officials have since President Biden announced his withdrawal plans.

“Some of our analysts are worst-case circumstances on challenges that we confront,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But I think it would be a mistake in my judgment to dismiss the Afghan security forces as not being a credible force that could perform well, although they will face more difficult circumstances now.”

Khalilzad also said he does not believe there will be “imminent collapse” of the Afghan government after U.S. troops leave.

“I do not believe that the government is going to collapse, that the Taliban is going to take over,” he said.

Khalilzad’s assessment came in his first public testimony since Biden announced earlier this month he was ordering all U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, bringing U.S. military participation in America’s longest war to an end.

It also came after the top U.S. general in the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, gave a grim assessment of the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal.

In congressional testimony, McKenzie expressed concern about Afghan forces’ ability to hold onto territory without U.S. military support, adding that the Afghan forces “certainly will collapse” if both military and financial support ends.

U.S. officials have insisted financial support will continue even after the withdrawal.

McKenzie also said the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan without U.S. troops stationed there will be harder but “not impossible.”

On Tuesday, some senators expressed skepticism about Khalilzad’s more optimistic assessment of the Afghan forces.

“I hope that your optimism is rewarded and that at a future hearing we will be looking at that the Afghan security forces were able to sustain the nation and therefore create a chance for a pathway at a diplomatic solution,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “I fear that at some point in the future we may be having a hearing that that isn’t the ultimate reality. And then we’ll have some real serious decisions from that.”

Even as he maintained his brighter outlook, Khalilzad agreed with Menendez it would be “both smart and prudent” for the Biden administration to plan for worst-case scenarios in Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdraw.

Several senators also expressed concern about the rights of Afghan women after U.S. troops withdraw.

“What we do over the next four months is going to impact the lives of women for generations to come, and I believe we have to do everything in our power to support the women of Afghanistan,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in an impassioned speech highlighting Taliban murders of several women. “We have worked for two decades alongside our allies to advanced the rights of not just women and girls, but other ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, and we can’t let those two decades of hard work be ignored in peace talks.”

Khalilzad said he “share[s] Sen. Shaheen’s concern.”

Echoing previous comments from McKenzie and CIA Director William Burns, Khalilzad also acknowledged Tuesday that “there will be some degradation” in intelligence gathering capabilities without a physical presence in Afghanistan.

“But we believe given the nature of the threat right now, with the efforts that are underway for an over the horizon presence to monitor, that we would get adequate warning,” he said.

Khalilzad was the lead U.S. negotiator of the agreement with the Taliban signed during the Trump administration and was kept on by Biden to continue peace efforts.

The Trump administration’s deal set a deadline of May 1, which is Saturday, for a full U.S. withdrawal. Since the deal was signed, the Taliban has largely refrained from attacks on U.S. forces, but the insurgents have threatened to resume attacks on U.S. troops even as they withdraw because Biden is not meeting the deadline.

Khalilzad stressed Tuesday that because of the existing agreement, the choice Biden was facing as he decided whether to withdraw was whether to go back to full-scale war against the Taliban.

“If we did stay for another year or two or indefinitely … we will be back at war with the Talibs,” Khalilzad said, adding that “there could have been potentially demand for more forces to be able to maintain the status quo, not to lose significant grounds.”

Tags Bob Menendez Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden William Burns

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